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Self-Care For Physicians: 8 Tips and Healthy Habits to Practice

Have you noticed how compound words that start with “self” float around our daily lexicon? Self-determination, self-esteem, self-assurance, self-examination, self-image, and self-love, to name a few.

This year, the World Health Organization declared the 24th of June until the 24th of July as Self-Care Month, with July 24th chosen as Self-Care Day. WHO defines self-care as “individuals, families, and communities promoting and maintaining their own health, preventing disease, and coping with illness and disability, with or without the support of a health worker.”

That’s a vision for global health that addresses the desperate need of “4.3 billion people with inadequate access to essential facility-based health services…[and the] one in five of the world’s population now living in humanitarian crises.” Closer to home, self-care tends to focus more on “taking care of yourself so that you can be healthy, you can be well, you can do your job, you can help and care for others, and you can do all the things you need to and want to accomplish in a day.”

As physicians, we preach the importance of self-care to our patients. An online survey of 1,006 U.S. adults and 304 physicians found that 96% (9 in 10) physicians consider self-care essential to one’s health. Eighty-eight percent feel providing medical treatments and self-care for their patients is the cornerstone of their work. 

But do we practice what we preach? It’s no secret that physician burnout is at an all-time high. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the pandemic has pushed U.S. doctor burnout to an unprecedented 63%.

The National Academy of Medicine (NAM), the U.S. Surgeon General, and President Biden have all championed “new legislation and action” to “bolster the physicians and other health professionals who have worked so tirelessly to save countless lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

While it’s encouraging to know that the issue of physician burnout, which too often leads to suicide, is being addressed, most of us can’t wait to be rescued by organizations and government programs. We need to do the work of self-care ourselves.

Why are we, as humans, resistant to doing this type of work? After all, taking care of ourselves so we can care for others is a reasonable investment of time and energy. What stops us, then, from making necessary changes that will make our lives better?

Even when we feel a decent amount of self-worth, we tend towards neglect rather than care. Understanding some of our underlying thoughts towards ourselves can help crack open this mysterious contradiction.

  • We’re resilient in the face of neglect.
  • We don’t experience the toll a lack of self-care takes.
  • It’s not as important as the other work we do.
  • The changes we need to make are too-something — too big, too hard, takes too much money, takes too much time, etc.

Eight Tips and Healthy Habits to Practice Self-Care

So, with the understanding that most of us find self-care difficult, if not impossible, I offer some helpful tips and habits in eight main areas of our lives.

A Physician Practicing Self-Care Habits

With all the available advice online, I’ve tried to focus on “doable” and suggestions that hopefully spark ideas of practicing a better level of self-care.

1. Physical Self-Care

One in four doctors in the U.K.’s National Health Service is “so tired…their ability to treat patients has become impaired.” I’m sure the stats are not so different here at home.

Conventional wisdom around physical self-care always includes eating a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep every night. Uh-huh. Doesn’t that sound just wonderful?

The reality is that this prescription is simple; it’s far from easy to implement. 

Eating a Healthy Meal

Eating right is incredibly time-consuming, and time is what most of us don’t have enough of. We may be time-poor, but many of us could spend a little more to get help in this area. 

Tip: Hire someone to prep your meals. Check where you live online and find people willing to prep or cook food for you and your family. You can specify the service you need — from chopping and pre-packing vegetables for the next week to preparing meals.

Tip: Be content with slightly boring. If you can tolerate eating the same or similar thing for breakfast, you can guarantee yourself a good start to the day. Cook a large quantity of breakfast food on the weekend and heat it up each morning. Or keep the ingredients for protein- and plant-pack fruits and vegetables ready for a smoothie.

Walking During Rounds

Exercise: The Mayo Clinic recommends at least 30 minutes of “moderate physical activity” daily. Carving out an extra half hour for exercise may not work during the weekdays, but most of us can incorporate a lot of walking into our days.

Walking during rounds, while making work calls, parking your car at the back end of the parking lot, and taking the stairs are just some ways to get your 10,000 steps in. 

A Physician Getting Enough Sleep

Sleep well: No matter what source you reference, the standard recommended number of hours adults should sleep is between seven to nine. 

One of the biggest deterrents to getting to sleep is spending time in front of a screen for an hour or two before you want to sleep. This may be bad news, but to have a chance to get the sleep you need, you may have to give up entertaining yourself with your phone, computer, or TV before bedtime.

“Good health is not something we can buy. However, it can be an extremely valuable savings account.” – Anne Wilson Schaef 

2. Mental Self-Care

Mental health is often a blanket term covering emotional, psychological, and social well-being. In this context, we’re going to use the term “mental” to refer to your brain’s health.

Popular wisdom suggests that we tend to hit our “cognitive maximum” around age 35 and stay at that stage until we’re about 45. Our mental sharpness starts to decline as early as age 45. Over a 10-year study, people between 45 and 49 experienced a 3.6% decline.

A 2019 report published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (JAG) has better news. They believe there is increasing “evidence [that] shows age-related diseases — rather than age itself — may be the key cause of cognitive decline.”

A Physician Practicing Mental Self-Care

How can we practice self-care regarding our mental acuity? The two major factors within our control are mental activity and physical activity.

We talked about physical exercises already, but brain exercises are just as important and can help “improve memory, focus [and] daily functionality.” 

Healthline lists 13 ways of using your brain to keep mentally healthy:

  • Put together a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Play card games
  • Increase your vocabulary
  • Dance, dance, dance
  • Use your five senses all at the same time
  • Learn a new skill
  • Teach someone else a new skill
  • Listen to or play music
  • Drive via a different route
  • Meditate
  • Learn a new language
  • Practice tai chi
  • Focus on someone else

“All of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.” – Albert Einstein

3. Emotional Self-Care

Our work as physicians is demanding and often emotionally draining. Emotional self-care is about treating yourself as well as you would treat someone you dearly love. 

Most people have an internal (sometimes external) critic who treats us far less kindly than we would ever consider treating someone else. But treating ourselves with understanding and kindness isn’t the same as indulging in bad or weak behaviors. 

An Emotionally-Well Physician

It’s not patting ourselves on the back and saying, “There, there,” if we’re overly aggressive, controlling, or rude. Or if we’re apathetic, lazy, or a know-it-all.

It’s wanting what will develop our character and ability to move through life. But doing so without harsh judgments and words. 

“Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.” – Parker Palmer

4. Spiritual Self-Care

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are more than bodies and minds. Each of us has an intangible piece that makes us who we are. Call it a soul or spirit, your “inner self,” or any other descriptor you want.

That part of us also needs care. No matter how you view spirituality, according to Mental Health America, there are many possible benefits from focusing on it — “better mood[s], less anxiety and depression, and even fewer aches and illnesses.”

As recently as the end of last year, 75% of Americans identify with a “specific religious faith.” Slightly less than half of us feel religion is “very important” in our lives.

But even those without a specific religious faith need to care for their inner selves. One of the best ways to boost your spiritual health is through meditation.

A Physician Practicing Spiritual Self-Care

According to Meditations for Dummies, it “doesn’t take much to meditate the right way.” They suggest that you all need a “quiet place to sit, the ability to direct your attention, and a simple meditation technique.”

Meditating in a quiet place every day for 10-15 minutes while breathing deeply lets you slow down the mental swirl and either focus on your breath, physical sensations, or “reflecting upon inspirational or sacred writings.” 

“Grant me the courage to change the things I can, the peace to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – Reinhold Niebuhr

5. Environmental Self-Care

While environmental self-care may not seem as important as some other types of self-care, the Journal of Behavioral Medicine suggests the effects of our environments are related to stress and mood. 

Environmental self-care refers to creating an environment where you can relax, concentrate, and spend time in nature. 

A Woman Relaxing in Nature

The spaces we spend time in “shape our sense of identity, efficacy, and control,” which are critical to well-being and productivity. Decluttering can reduce stress and overwhelming feelings, and cleaning your home or office is two simple ways to care for yourself.

Forest bathing is a term used to describe spending time in nature and has been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and increase creativity.

“Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits 

6. Financial Self-Care

One of the less talked about types of self-care is financial self-care. But anyone who has felt the stress of debt and worries about affording the future knows that creating financial goals and realizing them can reduce and even eliminate a nagging pit of anxiety in one’s stomach.

This area sometimes requires a brutally honest conversation with yourself. Until you’re willing to face up to any unmanageable debt you’re carrying, it’s hard to work towards creating financial freedom going forward.

A Physician Practicing Financial Self-Care

There’s no new to financial self-care. Create a budget. Spend less than you make. Pay down debt. Start an emergency fund. Invest.

It’s not as comfortable as a warm bath with lit candles and a good book, but dealing with this area of self-care will let you sleep better and lower your overall stress and tension.

“Radical economic transformation is not a quality you demand from the government; radical economic transformation is a quality you demand from yourself.” – Mac Duke, The Strategist

7. Social Self-Care

Social self-care is “the act of taking care of one’s own well-being through maintaining positive social relationships and by establishing meaningful connections and developing one’s social identity.”

Basically, it involves our connections with other people. Whether we work on developing closer relationships with other people or disconnecting from those who aren’t healthy for us to be around. 

Thanks to WhatsApp, Zoom, FaceTime, or a number of other ways to connect with our friends and family, we aren’t limited by physical distance when we want to reach out. Connecting with others has been linked with lowering stress levels, which “adversely affect coronary arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system.” 

Practicing social self-care doesn’t just protect you from negative outcomes; caring behaviors can also “trigger the release of stress-reducing hormones.” This benefits both the giver as well as the receiver.

A Physician Practicing Social Self-Care

Just a few of the 20 great ways to keep in touch even when separated by distance include:

“Socializing is more positive than being alone; that’s why meetings are so popular. People don’t like being alone.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

8. Recreational Self-Care

It’s no secret that laughter has unmistakable health effects as it triggers a release of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. It also works as a “reappraisal technique, reducing the limbic response associated with ‘fight-or-flight’ reactions.”

Taking time out for fun and creating moments that bring you joy is one of the best ways to practice self-care. That may look like traveling, watching a good movie, reading a great book, doing something creative, or just playing games or puzzles.

Recreational self-care may be seen as the least important of all the self-care habits, but carving time out of your busy schedule for hobbies and activities that don’t require a lot of brainpower is essential.

Recreational Self-Care

Some of the more unique ideas I found for recreational self-care include:

“Nobody needs laughter as much as those who have none left to give.” – Dale Carnegie

Sometimes, researching these articles hits home hard. I know the demands of being a physician. I know the burnout. The overwhelm. The struggle of working for someone else.

And working through my own struggle propelled me to start EntreMD, where I help other physicians do what I did — build a profitable business that gives you time, freedom, and fulfillment. 

If that’s what you’re looking for, this is the right place. Join the community at EntreMD and find ways to live life and practice medicine on your terms.